View from the Pulpit: Singing and Community

Mrs Grote, Head of Classics, reflects on what Friday means to her and how singing can bring us all together and form a greater sense of community. 

I’m always pleased when it gets to Friday

Much like you I’m sure. It’s the end of the week. There’s Fish and Chips. Tutorial with the wonderful U6E, my weekly meeting with the even more wonderful Doctor Farr. Those are reasons to look forward to Friday. But moreover, on a Friday, you can be fairly sure of a good hymn. And with a good hymn, you can enjoy a good sing.

But what about the actual act of singing a hymn? Yes, it can be an awkward activity, perhaps especially for a teenage group. Will I get it wrong? Will my voice stand out? What if I sound silly? What will the person next to me think if I give it a go? Some may dislike it, but we have all experienced Mr Allain’s attempts to wake us from morning slumber with a variety of games, all clever disguises to get us singing well. Naughty true or false questions, impossible teasers involving counting numbers or shapes. Who can forget his attempt to get us all, including the Head Master, “dabbing” in time to the music? 

Mr Allain has science to support him in his quest to get us singing. An Institute of Education study concluded that singing increases oxygenation in the blood and exercises major muscle groups. Furthermore, when people sing together, there is an increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour. You simply can’t sing a hymn so well by yourself; you can try, but it won’t be as satisfying. Singing affects our endocrine system, concerning both our hormones and emotional well-being. A UEA research project recommended singing as a low-commitment, low-cost tool for mental health recovery. This is because, when singing, our bodies release those same hormones as when we are eating something we enjoy: endorphins that bring us pleasure and alleviate anxiety. It should be the same feeling you get when you eat a bar of chocolate, but without the calories. As well as making us healthy, singing keeps us so. After performing a complex choral work, higher levels of immune proteins were found in the saliva of choristers. So, were you to take a deep breath, and sing, confidently, you could be smug in the knowledge that your immunity could end up being better than that of your non singing friends.

Charles Hubert Parry wrote the melody for today’s hymn. The 170th anniversary of his birth is next Tuesday; the centenary of his death will be marked later this year, alongside the end of WWI.

Perhaps most well-known to us at Norwich School is Parry’s setting of William Blake’s, Jerusalem, often sung as an anthem of community or even national pride. Parry and his wife, Maude, themselves passionately campaigned for women’s suffrage, but would they have ever anticipated how Parry’s setting of Blake’s words would have such lasting power, for rugby fans and The WI alike?

Parry also blends text, melody and harmony in other choral music. In Blest Pair of Sirens, Parry takes the words of poetic great, John Milton, who describes the combined, divine power of Voice and Verse, before wishing that we too may be able to answer such song with our singing. In his six Songs of Farewell, composed by Parry as he was suffering from a serious heart condition, and approaching his death, Parry considers his mortality and reflects on his faith, but using the words of poets. Dying a mere month before the end of WWI, Parry did not live to see the peace he so longed for, yet his choice of texts in these pieces certainly demonstrates an exploration of what happens after death, if not a firm creed: There is an old belief / That on some solemn shore / Beyond the spheres of grief / Dear friends can meet once more.

Returning to today’s hymn you might be amused to know that Parry found the text of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind in a long, eccentric poem describing a Hindu practice of whipping up religious enthusiasm by drinking intoxicating, hallucinogenic concoctions. Not, of course, what we are encouraging you to do this morning. The text’s author, an American Quaker, actually deeply disapproved of singing in church: he firmly believed that God was best worshipped in silent meditation. A far cry from what our cathedral, organ and, sometimes, even trumpets, encourage from us on a daily basis. But perhaps such silent meditation is not so far from what Parry was aiming for when concluding his hymn with a prayer, not only a wish for the removal of strain and stress from our lives, but for us to be able to find a small voice of calm when life becomes too frantic.

I urge you, whatever the hymn, whether you know it or not, to consider the words as well as the tune…  There are messages within.

I shall finish with the words of three others, all experts and advisors in their own ways.

At the conclusion of the Gryffindor house feast, and after the singing of the school song, Albus Dumbledore remarks “Ah, music! A magic beyond all we do here!" Reminding us that even in wizard world, singing together counts as a potent collective enterprise.   

A ‘Time’ magazine journalist recorded the health impact of singing: “It is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out.  It is the one thing in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed.”

And finally, St Augustine notes that “He who sings, prays twice.” Reminding us that for many, a hymn is more than just words and music.

Whichever of these – the wizard, the journalist, or the priest - is most appropriate to you, I hope that an interest in music, or words, or science or religion will offer you a reason to keep on singing. 

I return to the words of St Augustine:

So my friends, let us sing Alleluia… let us sing as travellers sing on a journey, but keep on walking. Lighten your toil by singing and never be idle. Sing, but keep on walking. Advance in virtue, true faith, and right conduct. Sing up – and keep on walking.